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International weight

Rankings show the place of Brazilian research in the world and the position of our universities in specific areas


The publication of a recent list of international rankings of academic institutions updated the position of Brazilian research in global terms and highlighted specific areas of São Paulo institutions, such as the University of São Paulo (USP) and the State University of Campinas (Unicamp). This is the case, for example, with Health Sciences, in which USP appears in 92nd place in the ranking of The Times Higher Education, produced by the British newspaper, The Times, published last month. According to the ranking, in the Natural Sciences, USP appears in 130th place and Unicamp in 160th, whereas in the Engineering and Technology category USP is 128th and Unicamp, 155th. There are other sector highlights, such as the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ) and Paulista State University (Unesp), in 138th and 252nd positions, respectively, in Life Sciences, or the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro (PUC-RJ), which is in 248th place in Engineering. In the overall ranking, USP is indicated as the 207th best university in the world and Unicamp is 295th – in the previous year both were in better positions, at 195th and 249th, respectively. “Our performance in the ranking is pegged to the respect that we enjoy abroad,” says Mayana Zatz, Dean of Research at USP. In the survey, UFRJ appears in 383rd place and Unesp is among the 600 best universities.

The scientific director of FAPESP, Carlos Henrique de Brito Cruz, emphasizes the evolution of the São Paulo state universities. “They have advanced a lot and are effectively meeting the challenge of having a greater international presence. Their autonomy and specification of budget ties have been essential for the advances we’ve witnessed and FAPESP has strongly supported and accompanied with satisfaction the progress of each one.” The ranking of The Times shows a peculiarity: 40% of the institutions’ points are linked to peer-analysis. A group of 5,000 researchers from all continents was interviewed and each one of them indicated the universities he/she considers excellent. A recurring criticism of the survey is that this subjective nature of the assessment sometimes causes drastic changes in the positions of the universities, which do not always  reflect  an improvement or deterioration in the period. The opinion of companies who hire new graduates also bears weight in the formula, as do academic production and innovation indicators, among others. “Some questions have been raised as to whether the ranking is guided by regional factors, because 4 of the 10 best universities in the world are British,” says Ronaldo Pilli, Dean of Research at Unicamp. A direct competitor of the British ranking is the survey published annually by the Shanghai Jiao Tong University, China, which includes in the calculation the number of Nobel prize-winners on the staff and researchers whose production has a high citation index. It also includes the number of articles published in the journals Science and Nature, among others. The 2009 edition should be published this month. In 2008, USP was among the 150 best universities, Unicamp was in the top 250, the federal universities of Minas Gerais (UFMG) and Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ) were in the top 400 and Unesp was in the top 500.

In addition to these two traditional rankings, a new survey is being valued, especially among research universities. This is the Higher Education Evaluation & Accreditation Council ranking from Taiwan, which assesses the scientific production at the 500 biggest universities in six fields of knowledge. Coordinated by Mu-hsuan Huang, from the National University of Taiwan, it uses bibliometric methods, employing the indicators from the Thomson Reuters base. It takes into account productivity criteria (number of articles published in certain periods), impact (number of citations) and excellence (highly cited articles and the H index of institutions). According to the survey, USP ranks 78th, Unicamp, 288th, UFRJ, 331st and Unesp, 437th. “Even so, we rose 48 positions relative to 2008, thanks to the 85% increase in our scientific production, as indexed by the Thomson base over the last three years,” says Maria José Giannini, Dean of Research at Unesp.

Elsevier’s Scopus database, a competitor of Thomson Reuters, supplies another survey, the SCImago Institutions Rankings, which is based on the volume of scientific production and produced by a group of researchers from Spain. In this ranking, which takes into account not the quality but the number of publications, USP ranks 16th, Unicamp, 137th, UFRJ, 187th, Unesp, 204th and the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul, 301st.

The increase in visibility of Brazilian research, driven by the recent inclusion of dozens of scientific publications from the country in international databases, is considered one of the drivers of Brazil’s performance in international rankings. However, there is one ranking in which this phenomenon has a predominant weight: Webometrics. This assesses the exposure of the academic production of each institution by means of the links that they and their researchers have on the Internet. Instead of being tied to research and academic productivity figures, the Information and Documentation Center (Cindoc) of the National Research Council of Spain (CSIC), creator of the ranking, takes into account the idea that a university should make its scientific production available to the public over the Internet – and it measures this visibility by means of this indicator. By this criterion, Brazilian universities stand out. USP ranks 38th, Unicamp,115th and the Federal University of Santa Catarina (UFSC), 134th. UFRJ ranks 196th and Unesp, 269th. Brazil is the second country in terms of the number of institutions evaluated; it has 1,576 universities and research institutes. “There’s a culture of publicizing scientific production on the Web in Brazil, and the SciELO library, which makes Brazilian scientific journals available with open access on the Internet, is a great example of this,” says Rogério Meneghini, scientific coordinator of the SciELO Brasil electronic library.

The popularization of rankings is a recent phenomenon. In Brazil, until the 1990s, the best-known university ranking in the country was prepared by a men’s magazine, Playboy. There are those who criticize the way this type of indicator is revered as a direction to be followed by institutions. “When they first appeared, these rankings had specific purposes, such as helping undergraduate and graduate students from certain countries choose a university abroad, but they ended up becoming academic policy tools,” says Meneghini. “We ought to be discussing what we want for universities and create our own ranking based on those criteria. In practice, the rankings show what we already know: the São Paulo state universities are responsible for a significant part of the science produced in Brazil; USP is a reference point in medicine and in various other areas, and Unicamp is excellent in physics, materials and nanotechnology,” he says.

For Carlos Henrique de Brito Cruz, from FAPESP, it is good to know what the rankings say, but universities should be more discerning when using these indicators. “Each one of the rankings tells a part of the story, but together they don’t tell the whole story. It’s worth knowing the results, but a good university is not going to be driven by the ranking, but by its own specific academic objectives,” he says. Exaggeration apart, the fact is that indicators of this type, when internationally renowned, produce opportunities for highly-ranked universities. “The better the institution appears in a serious ranking, the easier it is for it to raise funds and attract students from abroad,” says Mayana Zatz, from USP. In her assessment, the University of São Paulo has room for improvement in the international rankings. “We need to encourage even more international collaboration. It’s better to produce 10 articles in high impact journals, with partners from other countries, than 100 articles in lower-impact journals. The more one collaborates, the greater the chances of attracting collaboration,” she says. Mayana also argues that USP has not known how to publicize its achievement properly. “Recently, our former dean, José Goldemberg, won an important prize in Japan, but the institution was incapable of highlighting the fact,” she says, referring to the respected Blue Planet Prize that the Asahi Glass Foundation awarded Goldemberg (see Pesquisa FAPESP  142 and nº 150). Mayana emphasizes FAPESP’s support in USP’s performance. “Anyone who’s in São Paulo and has a good project can’t complain about lack of funding,” she comments. The support of the Foundation was important for the prominence achieved by USP in the field of Life Sciences, since the units linked to this field, such as medicine, chemistry and biosciences, are the ones that have the biggest slice of projects funded by FAPESP.

Unicamp is preparing policies to expand its international role, and, as a consequence, it expects to rise in the academic rankings. The objective is to reflect its leadership position among domestic institutions in the number of studies per head in the Thomson Reuters ISI/WoS database. According to Deputy Dean Ronaldo Pilli, the university is going to set up search committees in each unit to identify researchers from Brazil and abroad whom they would like to attract to their staff – and invite them to initially spend periods of three to six months at Unicamp. The idea is to increase the level of competition in the exams that select the professors. “Another possibility is giving grants to young researchers,” says Pilli. The university is also planning to divulge in both Science and Nature when it is going to hold exams for the selection of professors. “Unicamp was constructed by attracting brains. We want to resume this tradition, bringing in Brazilian researchers who are doing postdocs abroad and foreign researchers,” he says.

Unesp has also developed strategies on several fronts. As its distinguished performance in Life Sciences is not replicated in areas such as Engineering and Human Sciences, the university has created programs to encourage collaborative research between the institution’s units, which are spread across 23 São Paulo cities. “The ‘Renew Human Sciences’ and ‘Renew Engineering’ programs are aiming to increase our production in these areas,” says the Deputy Dean Maria José Giannini. In the case of Social and Human Sciences the performance of the three São Paulo universities, as measured in the rankings, is at a lower level than the Life Sciences, Natural Sciences and Engineering. Another measure was to make the name of the university uniform in its researchers’ scientific articles. The standard adopted now is Unesp – Univ. Estadual Paulista [Paulista State University]. “We discovered that the name was written in five different ways in articles published in journals listed on the Thomson Reuters base, which undoubtedly did us some harm when academic production was computed for the Taiwan ranking, which uses this source,” says Maria José Giannini. The university wants to meet the challenge of increasing its prestige abroad. It has declared 2010 as The Year of the Globalization of Unesp and is trying to increase partnerships with researchers from abroad. It also plans to debate the requirements for fitting into the concept of a world-class university. “The rankings provide important indicators about what we need to do to be among the best, even though, domestically, this effort is not always well understood,” she says.